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`Summit of the Eight' won't add up to much

Financial Post, Daily edition, Friday, June 20, 1997

Russia hasn't looked back since it got its foot in the door of the exclusive G7 club in 1991.

That was when Mikhail Gorbachev, in the dying days of the Soviet Union, was invited for lunch by the group of industrialized nations meeting in London. At this year's summit, which officially begins today, Russian President Boris Yeltsin will sit down with the other leaders almost as an equal at what's being called the Denver Summit of the Eight.

Yeltsin, fully recovered from heart surgery, will be in on every meeting over three days except the hour and a half the G7 -- the U.S., Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan -- has set aside for hard-core economic issues.

In fact, Russia is being thrust into the G7 spotlight by U.S. President Bill Clinton, who wants to bolster its image. As summit expert Prof. John Kirton of the University of Toronto recently explained in FP, this year's meeting is being turned into a string of banquets, parties and receptions where Yeltsin will be the focus of attention -- a payback for big-power Russia going along with NATO's expansion eastward.

The result, however, is that pressing economic problems will be given short shrift.

The uncertain future of European monetary union deserves the attention of G7 leaders. So does the shaky state of Japanese financial institutions, and a trade liberalization process that has progressed only slowly since the Uruguay Round wrapped up three years ago. Finally, there are the social policy challenges of joblessness and an aging population that afflict all G7 members.

With less than two hours set aside for a frank exchange between leaders on these subjects, one can't help but wonder what kind of discussion will take place. Will pension reform get a total of 10 minutes, with each leader limited to a 60-second statement?

It's been argued Russia has earned a place at the G7 table by meeting the three criteria that define the G7's current membership -- a democratic system of government, a market-oriented economy and most important, major-power status. Granted, Russia has a way to go in the first two areas, but it certainly fits the last criterion.

And Russia dearly wants to become a real member. Shortly before his departure for the summit, Yeltsin said, ``I very much hope that in Denver it will finally be decided to turn the G7 into the G8 ... Such a decision would be a historic one for Russia.''

With the trend toward integration likely to continue (this is Yeltsin's fifth summit), Russia's wish could soon be fulfilled. There's even some talk that Clinton, in a mood for making history, may make an announcement in Denver.

However, if a new G8 wants to avoid the criticisms of the past -- ``media circus,'' ``hot-air fest'' -- it cannot afford to repeat the kind of summit Denver is shaping up to be, that is, long on pageantry and short on substance.

Source: This information is provided by the Financial Post.

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